Parents and grandparents are among a child’s first catechists, which is why learning and practicing faith at home are key. John Blaine photo
Parents and grandparents are among a child’s first catechists, which is why learning and practicing faith at home are key. John Blaine photo
Pilar Acosta is facing a unique task: coordinating both the religious education programs and adult faith formation in not just one, but three languages – English, Spanish and Polish.

Getting families involved will be key to success, noted Acosta, parish catechetical leader in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lakewood.

“This is the time to implement the domestic Church,” she said. “We have to evangelize our people. They have to rely so much on the Catechism to teach the faith, so we have to bring them back and teach the domestic Church family … we’ll see where they’re at, and we’ll have to walk with them.”

Acosta is among the dozens of religious education teachers and volunteers across the Diocese who will be handing on the faith in new ways this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

To assist in that process, the diocesan Department of Catechesis sent out guidelines in August so parishes could determine the religious education model best for their communities in the 2020-2021 year. 

“There are various ways that parishes could offer religious education this year; it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Denise Contino, diocesan director of catechesis.

Those models are: supported home-study, where parish catechetical leaders and volunteers offer parents support; hybrid, where home study includes limited in-person sessions; family catechesis, learning activities for the entire family, in-person support to parents, and in-person check-ins to receive guidance in instruction; remote learning with video instruction, or in-person catechesis.

“We must be very creative, have backup plans and provide the support that many families need,” said Viviana Bonilla, PCL in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown.

Family Faith

With new technology and teaching methods key to passing on the faith during COVID-19, the diocesan Department of Catechesis offered coaching for virtual platforms over the summer. There were videos for catechists, training for Google Classroom with a Google expert, and a workshop for how to keep children engaged online, to name a few.

In addition, most religious education series software utilized by parishes have training and teaching tools available through their online parent portals.

Acosta calls the increased family involvement reflected in the religious education models a growth opportunity. “In a way, I’m a little excited about the family catechesis, because I get to see where people really are in their faith.”

Contino agreed, saying, “As a parent, you are your child’s first catechist. You could learn along with your children. Kids are only going to practice the faith if it’s from the family.”

Michelle M. Doré, coordinator of religious education in St. Charles Borromeo, Cinnaminson, has already heard positive news when it comes to the remote-learning model. Parents reached out to her after this summer’s religious education classes, explaining how they read chapters with their children and talked about the lessons as a family.

“They felt they were going back to the basic teachings of Jesus Christ,” she said.

Learning Curves

Bonilla admits she sees challenges ahead, specifically technology and communication. The St. Anthony of Padua Parish religious education program will be online this year, and Bonilla has English- and Spanish-speaking communities to catechize.

“Some families do not have an electronic device at home, access to the Internet, or it is difficult for them to use these technological tools,” she explained. “In addition, the main means of communication becomes e-mail. However, due to the stress that many families may currently be experiencing, families may not be as attentive to this information.”

She remains optimistic, however, saying learning from home will hopefully bring parents and children closer together in faith and establish a presence of God in their home.

“Changes are stressful, but we can always get good things out of these experiences,” she said.

Acosta’s religious education program is also offered in English and Spanish. While the children speak English, many of the parents only speak Spanish. So the parish plans to offer English materials for the children and Spanish for parents, enabling them to work together.

The materials available through the Diocese, Acosta said, have been great for bilingual families. “The lessons are back-to-back English and Spanish – very simple, not complicated.” Similar materials will be accessible for the Polish-speaking adult faith formation classes as well.

Safety First

The successful summer program in St. Charles Borromeo Parish is the basis for the fall classes, which will utilize Google Meets and in-person lessons, Doré said. With about 70 students enrolled in the summer, “I got to see what worked and what did not work. 

“Having specific guidelines for online learning is essential, for example students need to be home, must have their video on, no pictures or emoji’s in their place,” she continued. “I found having no more than 15 students meeting online is a good number.”

For programs such as Doré’s, the Diocese has provided guidelines for meeting in person. For example, all teachers, volunteers and children must have their temperature taken upon arrival and disclose possible exposure; face coverings and social distancing are required; cleaning of classrooms must take place before each lesson, and hand-sanitizing stations should be easily accessible.

Doré’s religious education children will meet in the parish school for the in-person component, following the school’s safety guidelines as well. She admits her team will be busy cleaning and taking the temperatures of catechists and students, and that there may be learning curves as there are new ways to enter and leave the building. Also, no large gatherings will be allowed or sitting on a classroom rug for discussions.

Still, she is more than hopeful for the coming year. “It is extremely important that we continue to catechize during this ever-changing world. We must have faith in God so we can continue his mission of spreading the Good News, and I think that is what the world needs right now – Good News spread!”

With every parish required to offer a religious education program – which could include parishes sharing resources – Contino is looking forward to seeing what parishes have planned when they submit their intentions, due by Sept. 4.

And with continual re-evaluations on the parish level over the coming months and numerous resources from both the Diocese and parishes available to assist parents in their role as catechists, Contino stresses that children should be well-equipped to learn.

“We’re not creating theologians; we are creating disciples,” Contino said. “It’s not about passing a test, it’s about a relationship with Jesus.”